Recently I found myself with a free afternoon in Washington DC, and decided to check out the Sculpture Garden of the National Art Gallery. The 6 acre park full of mature trees and manicured spaces is located in the heart of the city beside famous museums and archives, and boasts sculptures from A-list artists, including David Smith, Claes Oldenburg, Louise Bourgeois.
It is rare to see so many large scale art works in one location. As a sculptor and educator, I was excited to see work I had only experienced in images. Upon entering the park, school groups sporting matching shirts and families snapping cellphone images of kids made it evident that this is a major tourist destination. It was exciting to so many people experiencing art in a public forum, but this was undercut by a strange sense of déjà vu. The wide open space was unsettlingly familiar: from the iron railings dividing the artwork from the viewer, to the descriptive plates in front of each sculpture, to the way viewers walked up to piece, snapped an image and walked away without investing further in the sculpture standing in front of them.
Standing in front a giant Bourgeois Spider it struck me this this did not feel like a public art forum, so much as it did a zoo – a place where sculpture was contained, categorized, and safely tucked into cages. Encountering a bear in the safe confines of a zoo is a very different experience that encountering one by chance in the wild. In the zoo, the bear is not real; it is out of context and it poses no threat. The Sculpture Garden does this to the large scale sculptures it contains by removing them from everyday existence and placing them in suspended animation.
This experience highlights the importance of public art – art that is encountered on the street, that inhabits the cityscape and is not segregated within a curated park.
I realize that the Sculpture Park is ideologically more akin to an outdoor gallery than a public art arena, and I do not dispute the value of a citizen experiencing the collected work, however it seems counter to developments in public art over the past forty years.
Claes Oldenburg famously said “I am for an art that does not sit on its ass in a gallery” (I am paraphrasing), I wonder how he would feel about his sculpture pacing in a cage like a confused lumbering bear.
(Photos by Brandon Vickerd)
BRANDON VICKERD is a Hamilton based sculptor and Professor of Visual Arts at York University. He received his BFA from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (1999) and his MFA from the University of Victoria (2001).
Purposely diverse, his studio work straddles the line between high and low culture, acting as a catalyst for critical thought and addressing the failed promise of a modernist future predicated on boundless scientific advancement. Whether through craftsmanship, the creation of spectacle, or humor, the goal of his work is to provoke the viewer into questioning the dominate myth of progress ingrained in Western world views.
He has received numerous awards and grants from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council, the Canada Council for the Arts, the Toronto Arts Council, and the Ontario Arts Council. Recent and upcoming exhibitions include Chopper at Art MUR Gallery (Montreal), Ace Art (Winnipeg), Grunt Gallery, and Artcite Gallery; Dance of the Cranes presented by Capitol Fringe (Washington DC), Sputnik Returned at Pulse (Miami, USA) and Sculpture by the Sea (Arrhus, Denmark), Clutch at the University of Waterloo Art Gallery (Waterloo, CA), and Monuments to a Perfect Future at Art Mur Gallery.